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John Berger: Ways Of Seeing

“What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are time and light.”

John Berger

John Berger responding to Susan Sontag’s book “On Photography”

Susan Sontag’s book “On Photography” is a classic. Almost every photography student has probably read it. It’s an excellent analysis of the far-reaching changes photographic images have made in our way of looking at the world and at ourselves. In his essay “Uses Of Photography”, John Berger – author of Ways Of Seeing – replies to Susan Sontag.

The most striking aspect of text “The Uses Of Photography” for me is when John Berger talks about photographs replacing memory. In contrast to memory, according to the author, photographic images do not retain significance in themselves. They are nothing more than a record of an event that has occurred at a certain time in a certain place.

By the light that has left its footprint on the photosensitive material, we know something’s “been there” in front of the camera when the shutter button was presses. For a brief moment, a split of a second, there is harmony between the physical subject and the image, or if you want the material on which its representation is formed (film, paper, sensor). But soon after that the connection no longer exists.

Thus the interpretation of each image is subject to the personal experiences, beliefs and opinions of each observer. It’s these factors that ultimately give meaning to an image. Whether it matches or not what the photographer had in mind when he took the image. It’s precisely this mechanism that makes photography a powerful instrument of manipulation. To sustain an economic system, for example, as John Berger says in his short essay. He argues that an industrialized society needs images to keep running and sustain itself.

“Ways of Seeing” or how we perceive and process visual images

When replacing the memory that puts things in perspective and gives them a value subject to critical judgment, images make us believe that we live in a world where everything is a spectacle. Enticing products we should buy etc.

Images taken out of context often confuse rather than they help to shed light on an issue. A photograph will always be subject to the associations of each observer and his ways of seeing – therefore there’ll always be many different versions as to its interpretation. That in itself is not bad. But what’s important is to know about this mechanism when looking and interpreting an image. In other words it is necessary to develop the ability to “look at images intelligently”.

If you are interested to read the whole essay “Uses Of Photography”, you can do that on the homepage of the University of Northern Iowa (UNI).

For further reading on the nature of photography and ways of seeing you might want to check out the following article on this site: “Shooting Through A Pinhole”, “Train Your Gaze With Henri Cartier-Bresson” and “A Good Excuse To See The World”.


Check out my photography podcast – conversations with inspiring photographers from around the globe sharing their secrets for creating amazing images. It’s mostly in German, but here are some episodes in English:

Valerie Jardin: “Street Photography – Creative Vision Behind The Lens”

Dmitry Stepanenko: “Heavy Color” Street Photography

Jason Koxvold: “Knives” – Left Behind In Rural America”

Dyanne Wilson: Chasing The Northern Lights In Yellowknife

Luc Kordas: Loneliness In New York

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  1. […] You can actually train your gaze in order to be able to anticipate the decisive moment – on a subconscious level. Thus the more you shoot, the more likely it is that you develop these skills that over time help to educate your eye. All your experience eventually come into play when taking a photograph. Henri Cartier-Bresson put it that way in the interview with John Berger: […]

  2. […] There is always something to say and talking through images can be a hard task, however I think that a lot of the time I look to share emotions through work, or tell a story or even a journey. A photograph can say whatever you want it to say, but others may sometimes read it differently to you, inputting their feelings and experiences into what they see. […]

  3. […] The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography […]


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